New faces may tighten race in AL West
Halos' counterparts make strides in catching up to division winner
The offseason brought major changes to the American League West, particularly at the top.
The Angels, who ran away with their second consecutive division title in 2008 and have claimed four crowns in the past five years, lost their record-setting closer, their top position player and a key veteran presence to free agency.
They used free agency to replace some of what they lost, but there's a sense that they've come back to the pack some.
How much? The A's, who dramatically improved their offense; the Rangers, whose offense should again be prolific; and the Mariners, who hired a new head man and brought back the best player in their history, are about to find out.
All four teams are bringing some new faces into the division. Among the players brought in via trade or free agency, these are the ones who figure to have the biggest impact on their respective teams:
LHP Brian Fuentes, Angels
OF Bobby Abreu, Angels
OF Matt Holliday, A's
1B/DH Jason Giambi, A's
SS Orlando Cabrera, A's
IF Nomar Garciaparra, A's
RP Derrick Turnbow, Rangers
OF Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners
RP David Aardsma, Mariners
OF Endy Chavez, Mariners
OF Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners
The division said goodbye to some star power during the offseason, as well as to some lesser-known players who played underrated roles with their respective clubs. Here's who they're with now (former team in parentheses):
1B Mark Teixeira (Angels), Yankees
RP Francisco Rodriguez (Angels), Mets
OF Garret Anderson (Angels), Braves
SP Jon Garland (Angels), Diamondbacks
RP Huston Street (A's), Rockies
SP Greg Smith (A's), Rockies
OF Milton Bradley (Rangers), Cubs
IF Ramon Vazquez (Rangers), Pirates
OF Raul Ibanez (Mariners), Phillies
RP J.J. Putz (Mariners), Mets
As usual, the Rangers will score their fair share of runs, and the Angels will have the most versatile attack. The A's, however, can feature a lineup that includes Garciaparra, Cabrera, Holliday, Giambi, Jack Cust, Eric Chavez and emerging star Ryan Sweeney. Oakland's O is anemic no more.
Our selection: A's
The Mariners like the top of their rotation, where Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard are an imposing one-two punch when they're on top of their games. The Angels' leading duo of John Lackey and Ervin Santana is more consistent, though, and if Kelvim Escobar's shoulder is right by May, he'll round out an impressive back end that features Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver.
Our selection: Angels
The A's are high on co-closers Brad Ziegler and Joey Devine, and they added setup man Russ Springer, who is 40 but coming off the best two years of his career. But playing in the World Baseball Classic dramatically altered Ziegler's preparation for the season, Devine was shut down with elbow pain on March 6 and only recently started throwing off a mound again, and Springer has looked his age. Fuentes is no K-Rod, but he's a former All-Star, and with Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo setting him up, late leads should be in good hands.
Our selection: Angels
The Angels, A's and Mariners finished last season within .001 of each other in fielding percentage, with the Rangers a distant fourth. Only one team made significant defensive upgrades, though, particularly in its outfield.
Our selection: Mariners
Here are a few factors that could greatly affect the division race.
Don Wakamatsu has been widely loved by the players everywhere he's coached. Now he's the rookie manager of the Mariners, who don't lack for talent and just might raise their game under the new boss.
The Angels were struggling on offense before they added Teixeira at the Trade Deadline last summer, and adding Abreu doesn't compensate for the offensive production lost when Teixeira and Anderson left. The Halos might have a hard time scoring again this summer.
The A's set club records for use of the disabled list in each of the past two seasons, and they've been banged up quite a bit this spring. If they get and stay healthy, though, the offense could be more than enough to support the largely unproven pitching staff.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Angels; 2. A's; 3. Rangers; 4. Mariners
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.